"Alanna, wake up." Anesh said, kicking at the couch in his living room. The couch itself was that smooth, not quite leather substance that made for great padding, but was never quite right to sleep on. It didn't hold heat that well, Anesh thought, so it was always just a little too cold, no matter how many blankets you bundled up in on it.
Which is why he was a bit surprised to see Alanna asleep on it when he came out to the living room.
She was sprawled out on the couch, still fully dressed. Anesh hadn't heard her come in, so she must have showed up while he was doing homework and decided to take a nap before the delve. But right now, she was taking the nap a bit too far. He kicked the couch again, getting an unsatisfying thump as the pillows dispersed the shock more than he wanted. "Alanna! Time to go!" He said a bit louder.
She rolled over, pushing her face into the corner of the couch. "Fuck off. M'sleeping." Were the words that came out of her temporary bed. Anesh didn't relent, though. He grabbed one of the cushions she was laying on and dragged it out, making a hole in her formation that gave Alanna no choice but to try to readjust. And doing so was enough to get her to open her eyes, and sit up. "Ugh. Why?" She muttered.
"Because it's 2:30 AM, we're on a schedule, and we need to go. I thought you were going to get there yourself, but now I find you in my living room, so, are you coming?" He asked her. Anesh had, luckily, had a late day with his classes. So he'd slept in, and was feeling bright eyed and energized even at this late hour. He was pretty sure that he'd be more than able to make it through the dungeon tonight without falling asleep. Though, he'd actually thought ahead, and added a couple cots to their supply list, so that Fort Door could expand into a miniature hotel if any of them needed to nap.
But now, despite being ready to go, despite having prepared everything and loaded the car earlier, and even made fresh coffee to bring along, he found he was still waiting for Alanna to open her eyes all the way.
"Yeah. Yeah." She stayed sitting on the edge of the couch, eyes mostly closed, as if considering falling back asleep. "Sorry. I can... I can get up." It looked for a minute as if that would be a lie, but after a long pause, Alanna did manage to haul herself to her feet.
Anesh just shook his head. "How can it possibly be comfortable sleeping in jeans? It's warm enough that I feel too hot and I'm wearing shorts."
"S'not comfortable. I'm just tired." Alanna responded. "I'm gonna use your bathroom, then I'll be ready to go."
"Okay." Anesh told her, opening the front door. "Don't take too long. I'll meet you in my car."
He took his time heading down the wooden steps of the apartment building, the green paint chipped and flaking off in places. The complex was kept up to date internally, with all the apartments having modern appliances, and no cut corners on basic construction, but the exterior always had this feeling to Anesh of just being a little run down. Like no one ever had the time or energy to spend just making the stairs look nice. He supposed he couldn't blame the apartment maintenance guys for that; they really were overworked around here. But it was weird to think, as he made his way to his car carrying the thermoses of coffee, that he could tell what step he was on blindfolded by the feeling of the chips in it.
Waiting in his car, a beat up second hand Subaru that was probably constructed before Anesh was born, Anesh spent the next few minutes fiddling with the radio before settling on the local jazz station just as Alanna opened the passenger door and climbed in. She didn't even say anything, just fired a disappointed sneer at the radio and immediately started flipping through preset stations herself. Anesh glared at her, but didn't make a big deal out of it.
Hitting the road, the two of them sat in companionable silence for a while, as Alanna fully woke up. It didn't take long, driving down dark streets mostly empty of cars, lit only by the orange glow of the streetlights, for Anesh to hit the highway. As they were pulling off the on ramp, Alanna decided to break the silence that had been filling the car.
"So, are we going to get there on time?" She asked him. It wasn't an aggressive question, but it did sort of bother Anesh.
He flicked his eyes over to look at her, just to check if she was being serious or just screwing with him. "We are going to get there on time, yes."
Alanna made an affirmative noise in her throat. "Right, right. I just ask, because you've been going *exactly the speed limit* this whole time, and I didn't want you to think you were, you know, required to for my benefit. I don't mind if you open it up."
"First of all," Anesh started, indignant, "it's a small miracle that this car made it up to fifty five at all. Second, and more important, we wouldn't be running late if it wasn't a 'we'. Why were you sleeping on our couch to begin with?" He asked her, blocking her probing question with his own.
"I was tired, obviously." Alanna retorted, deflecting his question with a non-answer. She let out a short laugh as she felt Anesh's displeasure with that answer, before turning serious. "But... um... no. I was just trying to not be at home for a while."
"Oh." Anesh sheepishly replied as he flicked his turn signal to show an empty road that he planned to leave it. "Do you... want to talk about it?"
It was amazing that someone like Alanna, who most of the time seemed seven feet tall and made out of two hundred pounds of steel, could look small, sitting there in his passenger seat. "I don't know." She said. "I mean, I don't know what I'm fucking doing. I'm responsible for taking care of three other humans, and one of them hates me, and one of them is my mother, and those two people are the same person. And now, I can't be at work all day, but I still have to explain that we can still eat, but I'm not a sex worker. So, I'm taking your couch sometimes, yeah."
"Bloody hell." Anesh muttered, leaning back into his seat as they waited for a uselessly red light. There was another silence now, but this one less comfortable and more tense. "I don't know what to say. I'm sorry doesn't seem good enough here." He chewed on his own lip for a minute. "You're welcome over anytime you need, though. And if the couch isn't comfortable, we know we have an extra bed."
Anesh pulled the car into one of the parking spaces outside the office building James worked in. Putting it in park and killing the engine, he checked the time; still on track, a good forty minutes before they needed to be at the door. So he didn't move to get out, and neither did Alanna, and they just sat there together for a bit. "I'm not sleeping in the haunted bed." She told him wryly.
"Oh, come on. It's probably not haunted. Besides, isn't the whole point of this that Sarah might actually be alive? Or at least... recoverable?" He asked, grimly.
"Recoverable?" Alanna tasted the word, and found it strange. "James told me that the huge orb from the shirt was 'identified' as a person. Do you have some kind of plan to... try to bring it back?"
Anesh didn't make eye contact as he answered, "Nope." Instead choosing to look up at the stars through his windshield. "But still. The room is there. And from everything we know... I don't think Sarah would mind you using it. At least, the person we think she was." His voice was heavy with melancholy. "It's so daft, to know that I have this person-shaped hole in my life, and not be able to see the edges of it." He told Alanna.
She tilted back her head to look up at the sky as well. "Yeah. Did you notice that we didn't find any pictures of her in that room? But I found more than a few of me. I looked... happy. Or at least amused. And I don't remember those moments. It really pisses me off."
"Of course it does." Anesh said with a grin. Then, after a pause, "James really does think we can get her back. Along with anyone else the dungeon has in it."
Alanna snorted. "James has a paladin complex the size of some small countries. But, well, shit, I get it. This place is seeming less like a treasure trove, and more like the kind of bullshit monster that you tend to cook up for D&D night."
Clearing his throat, Anesh started to say something, then decided to *not* tell Alanna that the 'genus loci' was right there in the Monster Manual. Instead, he changed tracks to, "Maybe you're right. We do need to keep an eye on it, for sure." He opened his door and started to swing his legs out of the car. "Now, help me get allllll this stuff onto the pallet so we can get it inside. I don't want to be late because we dragged our heels getting too philosophical."
"Getting philosophical is probably the best reason I can think of to be late." Alanna responded as they opened the trunk. Looking at the mass of gear in the back of Anesh's car, she whistled quietly. "Holy shit, this is just a big 'ol pile of stuff, isn't it?"
The two of them manhandled out the pallet, attaching the card handle to it, and then beginning the process of stacking boxes and cases on top of it. With the exception of the cots, which were safely in their own wrappings, they'd decided to box up most of the stuff just so it wasn't quite so suspicious. In theory, only one person was going to see them drag this mountain of material through the door, but just in case, it was probably for the best to not have to answer questions about why they had two hundred feet of rope and a flare gun in an office.
The weight of the cart made navigating the entrance to the office tricky. There were stairs, which was useless. But the access ramp was a strangely long and curved path that cut through the manicured lawn on the right of the stairs. The maneuvering of the cart took them minutes that were quickly becoming precious as the opening of the breach came closer and closer.
"Good evening sir." Anesh said to Frank as Alanna held the doors open for him and he dragged the cart in.
Frank, with his eternal grey five o'clock shadow and endless cup of coffee, looked up from his crossword. Well, he tilted his head slightly. That kind of attention was essentially full focus from Frank. Alanna also waved at him and smiled. "Hey Frank. How's the night going?"
"M. Patel. F. Byrne. Stay out of trouble." Frank said, dropping his eyes back to his paper as the two younger persons wheeled four hundred pounds of various weaponry and survival tools across the lobby and over to the main elevator bank. He wasn't chastising them, or even warning them. The way he dropped the words was simply that he was informing them that trouble, such as the sort that would require him to stand up, wasn't permissible tonight.
And they were totally fine with that.
As the elevator doors closed, Alanna tilted her head and quietly whispered to Anesh. "Do you find it weird that he knows our last names?"
"I find it weird that you're whispering. He can't hear you." Anesh replied. "I find it more strange that he used Asimov's honorifics. Wait, doesn't he just call James 'Jim' all the time? What the hell is his naming convention?"
"You can't prove he can't hear us." Alanna stage whispered, as the elevator doors opened.
They stashed the cart in the hallway, right across from the stairwell doors. Originally, Anesh wanted them to put it in the stairwell itself, but Alanna had pointed out that, if they were even a minute late, they wouldn't be able to retrieve it, short of looping around to get it from inside; taking the elevator down and then running back up the stairs from below.
That had led to the conversation about how they didn't really know what happened if someone tried to come through the door from the other side when it wasn't a door. Did they end up on the other side of the miles-long 'exterior' wall that their group always entered from? Did the door just not open? Did it lead somewhere else entirely?
"We should test that sometime." Anesh had said.
"We should maybe not risk being vaporized." Alanna had replied.
It was a fair concern, even if it was mostly unfounded. After all, it wasn't a risk when they went through the door this direction.
Alanna brought up that it was more likely that, since the door itself seemed to be the focus of the warped time, it probably just shunted anyone trying to get through the other way a few minutes in one direction or another. Which would have been reassuring, if Anesh didn't realize that would constitute legitimate time travel. Which was a bit of a problem if it ever moved someone back in time.
"It probably doesn't." Alanna had said. "I'm just guessing after all." But it was too late, and the seed of worry was planted in Anesh's mind.
They waited in the break room, Anesh getting more and more fidgety as they counted down the minutes to the delve. At thirty minutes to entrance, JP and Dave showed up together and joined them. At fifteen, James finally strolled in.
JP gave him a mock salute as he entered. "We were worried about you." He said. "You weren't in the slave pits."
"You mean at my desk, where a normal employee goes?" James said. "No, I was in the bathroom. A place I recommend you all visit before we go into a realm devoid of common toilets for the next eight hours."
JP and Anesh snorted with laughter, but that didn't stop Anesh and Alanna from both standing and going to take the suggestion. Dave, meanwhile, just gave James a weird look. "Why are you talking like a character from a fantasy novel?" He asked.
"Don't question me, acolyte." James snapped back with a smile.
Exactly seventeen minutes later, five people and one flat cart left their reality for one of too-tall ceilings and burning fluorescent lights.
"Okay! Recap!" Anesh took charge as they dragged the cart in and the door shut behind them, setting an alarm clock down on the desk with a seven hour timer on it. With no more connection to the real office, there was no more need to keep voices down or constantly check over their shoulders for actual employees or managers. There was, of course, still a need to not alert the whole dungeon they were there, and to check over their shoulders for fake employees, but that was a problem for outside of Fort Door. Anesh was more interested in getting everything sorted, getting everyone geared up, and getting moving. "Dave, Alanna, you're on the cart! JP, grab that hand truck and help me get a couple desks in here that we can use for these maps! James!" James looked up with a half-surprised expression. Looking at his roommate, fresh off of an eight hour shift at work, Anesh rethought what he was going to say, and instead went with, "Go say hi to Rufus."
James smiled, and clapped Anesh on the shoulder as he walked in to find his strider friend.
Rufus was waiting on the desk where he'd set up his little 'garden'. "Hey friend." James greeted the stapler as he walked up. "Got a crop coming in?" He said it half jokingly, and got a bit of surprise when Rufus bobbed his head in agreement. "Oh?"
He looked down, and Rufus moved back, sweeping a pen leg out to show off his plot. He had some makeshift planters, made up of actual regular staplers and a couple of bulky grey office phones. Their edges kept in a sea of loose staples and paperclips, into which James was sure Rufus had planted those strange, fractal balls of staples that he'd been moving around a few delves ago. Out of the mess of metal, though, something was growing. It looked like a tangle of USB cables, black plastic bunched together in three places throughout the garden. In the middle of one of them, poking up to the sky, a single copper wire had sprouted.
"This is really something, buddy." James said to Rufus. "I have no idea if it's good or not, but you got something to grow without, you know, dirt or water or sun. So, I'm impressed, but also terrified as to what this actually is." Rufus shook himself, and James got the impression he was simultaneously being told not to worry, and also that the strider had no idea what dirt was. "Well. I just wanted to say hi while everyone else did hard work. I should really go get ready for the dive. Are you coming along tonight?"
Rufus thought about it, blinking slowly with his one sparkling yellow eye. He'd not thought about it, since he wasn't really asked before. Eventually, though, he settled on crossing his forelegs in front of himself. Not tonight, he was saying. But thank you.
While James and Rufus caught up, Ganesh simply alighted on Anesh's shoulder. The sudden weight of the drone was a feeling he'd grown used to, after so many hours in here, and it was a comforting presence to know that he had his smaller counterpart here with him. The relationship between Anesh and Ganesh was a little more stoic than James' with Rufus, but all the same, he reached up a hand to give a small pat to his companion, and the drone in turn gave him a bobbing nod of appreciation.
Distraction handled, Anesh went back to their plan for the night. He'd brought in Sarah's map, and the idea was that he, Alanna, and JP, would go scout out the path to the restrooms, while James and Dave went another direction on a general exploration run. They didn't really know if the route was safe, but it was more or less complete, and had some notes on traps. It also had a date annotated next to it, as did many other parts of the map, and the bathrooms were the last place that it looked like Sarah had gone while on her own delves.
James had been more than eager to take the whole group there first. It hadn't taken a lot of effort to calm him down, really, but there was a discussion about it. JP himself was the one who reminded him that he and Dave just didn't have the experience yet, let alone any game-changing skills like James himself had. and that they needed time to get their feet here before they went off on a rescue operation. Reluctantly, James agreed, and he and Dave ended up strapping on armor and equipment before the others, planning to stagger their disembarkation times so that they'd be able to call for help if things went bad too quickly.
While James and Dave mock argued over who got to carry the flare gun, and JP exasperatedly tried to resolve their 'argument', Alanna was examining the map. She knew Anesh had been studying it, but hadn't taken the time to do so herself. And one thing jumped out right away that bothered her. "Hey, did you see the dates on here?"
"Yes." Anesh said shortly, dragging the two folded up cots over to stack near the front fort wall. "It's something we need to start doing. Or at least, keeping a good timeline."
"No, I mean, did you actually look at the dates themselves?" Alanna clarified.
Anesh sighed. "What did I miss?" He asked, defeated.
"These are too close together." Alanna pulled out her phone and brought up the calendar, doing some quick checking. "Yeah, none of these are on Tuesdays. They're all, assuming they're correct, either Friday or Sunday."
"Well shit." Anesh said. "I'm getting tired of saying that. So, at least three breaches, then?"
"Four. No way she was using the one in the vents."
He shuddered. "Yeah, this place is getting more and more worrying." Anesh already knew that James had found a second breach into the dungeon. But it was a small one, and it was in a really awkward place. No matter what the dungeon felt like doing, it probably wasn't going to have an easy time sending an army through the air vents unnoticed. This wasn't Die Hard, after all. But if Sarah's map was to be believed, then there were not one, but *two* more openings, that a human could reasonably get through. Or at least, one that was open on two different days.
It was looking more and more like they really had lucked into the dungeon's back door.
"So," Alanna said, "what do we do about this?"
Anesh sighed. "Nothing? No, that's not quite right. We keep delving, we do it as safely as possible, and we learn more. Also, we should set up a contingency in case we... get lost." He couldn't bring himself to say 'die'.
"Nice euphemism." Alanna growled. She wasn't angry at him, though, just annoyed that the whole place was turning out a lot less fun than was originally pitched to her. "How, though? If this place takes us, won't it just wipe all the memories of us, like Sarah?"
"Terrifying." Anesh deadpanned. "We'll have to think of something this week. Maybe just an email set to send if we don't stop it. Can't think who we'd aim it at though." He looked up toward the entrance to the fort. "Alright, looks like James and Dave are ready to go. Want to go make sure they didn't screw up their armor before we see them off?"
"Sure." His friend replied, standing up and dusting off her knees from where she'd been crouched on the ground on the other side of the desk.
Strolling over to the front, the two got there just in time to see JP present James with the flare gun, and for the latter to clip the holster for it to the belt clip on the armor. "I'm giving it to him because he's not going to... well, he's less likely to fire it off just for fun." JP told Dave.
"Yesssss." James hissed out. "Alright Davey, ready to go? I've got a tree to show you."
"I have no idea what that means." Dave told him, suspicious.
James nodded. "I know. It's going to be a great surprise. But not a lethal one! I promise!" He turned to Anesh and Alanna. "You guys are gonna give us a fifteen minute lead time, right?"
"Yeah." Alanna nodded. "We're gonna unpack all the gear and sort it out properly. What are you taking, anyway?"
James checked down at the utility webbing that was layered over his armor. "The standard stuff. I've also got coffee and rope and stuff in the backpack. Oh, and the thermite 'grenades'."
"Not taking the potato gun? You spent so long on it!" JP asked him, surprised. "And broke your wall."
He shrugged. "Nah. I mean, it's cool, but Anesh," he nodded at his friend, "says that the impact triggers are kinda risky. So these ones just have timers on them." He gestured over at Dave. "I'm also making him carry a lot of stuff. Leaving the ten foot pole for you guys, though. It only seems fair."
"I don't really have a great reason, I just didn't want to carry yet more stuff. Besides, you guys are going to have the cart you can take with you, so you can loot a hell of a lot better." James replied.
Alanna slapped her forehead. "Oh shit, I didn't even think of that! We can steal so much stuff!" She exclaimed with joy.
"*Besides* that," James continued, "I'm taking the pen, and a couple of our saved blues. For emergencies."
"Seems fair. Well, you two have fun. Don't let Dave get killed." Anesh patted him on the armored shoulder one last time, and gave James a smile.
The two groups said their final goodbyes and good lucks then, and Dave and James turned to march off to the right. James really wanted to go see the Decision Tree again, and he also wanted to be the one to show it off to someone new, so that was his plan for introducing Dave to their tactics and basic survival tricks in the dungeon. A quick trip out and back, and then they'd regroup and make a plan for the second half of the night.
Easy as breathing.
James felt the breath flee his lungs as he was slammed back into the desk. Fortunately, his head missed the shelves with their carefully and arbitrarily arranged file folders and supplies and, on one of them, a small terrarium. Pain started to leak through as the small of his back turned into one singular angry bruise.
He'd been slammed back through the door of one of the cubicles, and it took him a second to unrattle his brain. What the fuck had hit him? One minute, he was showing Dave the standard procedure for looting a desk and discussing methods of identifying magic items, and the next, the pencil sharpener on that same desk had fired to life. But instead of trying to buzzsaw through their fingers, it had simply disgorged a cloud of shaving and dust, throwing up a blinding screen that left the two of them coughing and covering their eyes as they stumbled out into the hallway.
Then James had been clipped by something heavy, moving at high speed.
Coughing, trying to drag in a breath as his body refused to relax his diaphragm, James staggered back to a standing position. His hand went down for the hatchet clipped to his belt, while the other one fumbled open a case that he'd had tucked in a pouch, pulling out the contents and discarding the case itself. With the axe in one hand, and the pen in the other, he lurched forward, out into the hallway.
Dave was flat on the ground on the other side of the hall. The cloud of smoke and pencil shavings had cleared up, but there was no sign of what had hit either of them. James ducked over, tapping Dave on the shoulder. "Hey, hey! Are you alive?"
"Ow." Was the reply. "Aaaahhh fuck. FUck! What was that?!" Dave half-yelled, grabbing at his ankle. "I think it knocked my brains out. And I sprained my ankle again."
"Okay, that's bad." James said. "Good thing you had the helmet on. Also, did you see what it was?"
Dave shook his head. "It felt metal, though. I tried to grab it, and it felt metal. Hit at about waist height."
"That narrows it down. Couldn't have been a tumblefeed at least. Can you stand?" He set his axe down and offered Dave a hand up. His friend took a minute to test how much weight could go on his leg. "Okay, can you run?"
"Probably." Dave said. "It's not that bad." He winced as he stood up fully. "Hurts. How come I keep getting hurt here?" He asked.
James shrugged. "We get hurt here sometimes. It's the price we pay for candy and skill points. Okay, watch that way down the hall, I'll keep an eye behind us. Let's find a safe cube to sit in."
The two of them moved, not quite in perfect sync, but staying close together and both on high alert. Dave, having listened to some of James' advice over the course of the last half hour, was checking the cubicles as they passed by. The first one he ignored. There were three lamps on the desk; that was too obvious even for him. The second one he paused at, and James half bumped into him when he stalled to look through it. But seeing the computer tower on the desk shudder and shift itself in its sleep, he decided to abandon that one as well. At the third cube, he tapped James on the shoulder, and the two of them ducked in to take a respite.
"This is way more tense than I was expecting." Dave told him. He was already sweating in the armor, and his brain felt like it was totally burned out. "How do you guys do this?"
"Practice, I suppose." James said. "Also, there's some routines you get into that help. Speaking of..." He opened up the desk, the small side drawer sliding out on smoothly oiled rails. "Score." He muttered, pulling out a bag of candied nuts proudly bearing the name of They Are.
Dave looked over as James started munching on them. "They Are what?"
"They are delicious." James told him. "Also, that's something. The weird names on the candy is really surprisingly relaxing. It lets you laugh, keeps you from going insane being on full alert all the time. It makes it easier to think critically when you need to. You know, let your brain open up and do its job without having to focus on it." He tilted the bag toward Dave with a raised eyebrow, offering his friend some of the candy.
Dave took a second to process, then shrugged and held out a hand. Munching on the nuts, he leaned back in the office chair. "Wow, these are good. Hey, why does the dungeon make exclusively good candy? And, follow up, why does it always seem like stuff that should be in the real world, but isn't? Like, they could sell these in stores."
"Are you implying that the dungeon consumed the idea of good candy?" James asked with a smile, as he pushed Dave's chair out of the way and opened up the laptop.
There was a long pause, before Dave came to a conclusion. "Nah, that's stupid. I just want to be able to buy this stuff normally. Can I have some more?"
"Damn." Dave rolled his shoulders, trying to get his muscles to relax a bit. Looking around the cubicle while James tried to get into the computer, he tried to take James' advice and think a little more critically. What did he see? He thought to himself. An inbox, an outbox, piles of papers in each. A gloved hand reached out to riffle through them, but none of them made any sense. There were binders neatly arranged on one of the shelves, as there almost always were, but half of them were empty despite being labeled, and the other half were full of more gibberish. There was a bunch of pencils scattered across the desk, an absolutely inaccurate calendar hanging on the wall, a confirmed inert stapler, a pencil sharpener...
"Hey James." Dave asked. "How often do you see pencil sharpeners? We went through a lot of cubes, but I think that last one, and this one, were the only ones I've seen. And the last one was..."
James snapped his head up, and almost instinctively reached out for the piece of hardware. But as he got too close to it, it made an all-too-familiar buzzing, and a black haze erupted out of it. Dave was already reacting; he'd been paying attention for once, and actually felt pretty good about having spotted it in time to be moving. He was confused, though, when he nimbly backpedaled out the low opening, and James yelled out after him to freeze.
But he didn't stop. James caught one last glimpse of Dave through the smokescreen before it totally eclipsed the entrance and started billowing out into the hallway. He dragged his shirt up out from under the armor to cover his mouth, so he could breathe, and rearmed himself with axe and pen, before shouldering out into the aisle.
He could barely see anything, but he caught sight of Dave ducking into the cube across the hall. James moved to follow him, but a soft metal rattling and a sliver of motion out of the corner of his eye made him pause.
That pause turned out to be a good idea, as something blitzed past him. He felt something hard and unyielding clip him in the stomach, and heard a low hiss over the constant buzzing of the pencil sharpener. Now almost totally blind, and not wanting to breathe in any more graphite than strictly necessecary, James ducked across the hall as fast as he could into the cube Dave had taken refuge in. As soon as he was through the door, there was a *whump* from just behind him, and the cubicle wall slid inward a little.
"What the fuck was that?!" Dave yelped out.
James glared at him. "It's the ambush predator that apparently lives around here. I'm kind of shocked that we didn't notice it the first time. But then, we didn't trip any smokescreens the first time."
Dave gripped at the crowbar he'd insisted on bringing along. "Is it still out there?" He asked, terrified.
The comment earned him a glare. "I mean, I can't see right now, but I think it ran off. It's jumping us every time we trigger one of the smoke clouds." James peeked down the hallway as the smoke cleared. "I think it's a chair? That would be kind of insulting, but yeah, I think it's a swivel chair. Probably covered in spikes, obviously. I don't see it though."
"Okay." Dave wavered a bit. "Sorry I didn't listen to you fast enough. What's the plan, then?"
"Simple." James told him. "One of us is bait, and the other one jumps it when it tries charging again." The look he gave Dave, a wide grin and raised eyebrows, made his friend acutely aware of which one of them was going to be the bait.
Dave stuttered for a second. "Is there any way I could bribe you to do it?"
"Nope!" James said, doing another check as the cloud finally settled, leaving the carpet and walls covered in a black dust. "Okay, I'm gonna wait here, and I'll move up every three cubes you search. How long is this hall?"
"Thirty eight." Dave answered without thinking about it.
James did a double take. "Are you just pulling numbers out of your ass?"
"What? No. It's thirty eight. Didn't you count?" Dave asked him, shocked.
Exhaling through his nose, James pushed up his helmet to rub at his forehead. "Are you secretly actually OCD? You just count that without thinking about it?"
"I thought about it!" Dave objected. "You told me to be more alert! I'm being more alert!"
"No wonder you're exhausted." Came the muttered reply from James. "Okay, well, the plan stands. Move up, every three cubes I'll follow. If you see one of the dusters, just set it off, and when I see the thing coming, I'll jump it."
Dave nodded, and moved out. James crouched down in the doorway, waiting as his friend picked his way through to the next cube door. He was trying to keep an eye out, and also pay enough attention to be ready to help Dave if something went wrong. So focused on that was he, that he didn't notice the strider sneaking up on him until it tried to stab into his leg.
"Gah!" James nearly jumped out of his armor. "What the..." He looked down to see the stapler, this one lime green and a bit sparkly, savaging his thigh. "Oh, come on. That's not even doing anything." He told it. But all that he got in return was an indignant hiss. "Go away." He directed at the strider, but it persisted, trying to scramble up his leg to attack a presumably less armored point on his body. "Okay, fine!" He snapped at it, grabbing it and smashing it to the floor. James didn't want to be cruel, even though he was mad at it, so he went for a quick kill; flipping it backward and snapping it in half at the hinge that seemed to be more like a spine for these creatures. A second later, he plucked up and cracked the yellow orb it dropped without thinking about it.
[+1 Skill Rank : Drive - Hovercraft]
"Well that's just stupid. Who the hell has ever worked here that knew how to pilot a hovercraft?" He asked no one in particular. He didn't have much time to think about it, as a few seconds later, another plume of graphite scraps flooded the air of the hallway.
James steeled himself as Dave rushed through the hallway, coughing, trying to make it to a less polluted zone. A second later, Dave stumbled on his injured ankle, which turned out to be a good thing, since James got a perfect view of a *mail cart* bulldozing its way down the hallway at mach two. It was a frame of steel bars on a set of four caster wheels; drawers dotted the side of it, baskets that could be pulled out, and James saw that a lot of them were full of... something. Not mail, he'd bet. On the top of it, a couple packages sat, alongside a half dozen disposable coffee cups; a ring of probably-lethal lattes that somehow didn't fall of it's back as it sped along. James noticed that part as he was mid lunge, though, a little too late to uncommit.
His hatchet swing connected with it, and then slid down through its skeletal metal frame, hooking onto one of the rear bars near one of the wheels. James almost felt his arm yanked in half as the speed of the thing carried it on down the hall, now with him dragged along behind it like a Saturday morning cartoon made real. "James!" He heard Dave shout out from behind him; had he glanced back, he would have seen him bursting out of the smoke cloud, and racing after him, but by that point, the cart was already a dozen cubes away, and gaining ground.
James held on for dear life as the mail cart juked side to side. It clearly knew he was there, and he dug in his feet, trying to slow it down. He didn't want to try to grab any of the cube doors flying by; James actually preferred his wrists intact and not shattered into a million pieces. The cart did a sudden pivot ninety degrees sideways, dislodging the hatchet that James was desperately clinging to.
He lashed out, ditching the axe and gripping onto the cart itself. Even as momentum slammed him into the end wall of the hall hard enough to leave a James-shaped crack in it, he *pulled* as hard as he could to try to cut the charger's momentum before it could race off. It almost worked, but he was losing the fight, and being pulled along like a badly positioned waterskier. James was scared almost to the point of inaction to try to drag himself on top of it. Those coffee cups hadn't gone off yet, but he was paranoid to the extreme that they would if he so much as tapped one. So instead, he clicked open the pen in his left hand, fumbling for a minute through the glove, and then drove the smoking tip of the pen into the back right wheel of the cart. He missed the wheel, but still nailed the leg itself.
Neither James nor Dave had really considered what kind of noise a wounded mail cart would make. It was the sort of thought that didn't tend to come up in daily life. But now, they both got a first hand experience.
It sounded like a million pieces of paper being run through the world's most rusted paper shredder. It sounded like an office supply store in pain. It sounded like a child screaming, the sound composed of return-to-sender stamps.
James let go of the cart, and Dave collapsed to his knees, covering their ears. It tried to speed off, but almost tilted over, it's back leg smouldered away in flakes of steel, drifting in the drafts of the dungeon's air conditioning. Staggering on it's damaged rear leg, unable to keep its wheel balanced, it turned back on the two of them.
Dave was already on his feet in front of James, crowbar at the ready. James rose to his feet behind him and tapped him on the shoulder, signaling that he was moving up next to him. He didn't have his axe anymore, but he brandished the pen as threateningly as he could, smoke still dripping in strangely liquid wisps from its tip.
"The coffee cups explode." He mentioned to Dave.
Dave shot him a look that pretty accurately said "You are fucking kidding me", before turning back to the oncoming creature. It rushed them, but slower than it had been hitting them before. Both of them pivoted to the side, and it rushed past, trying to whip itself back around. Dave tried to strike at it with his crowbar, but it just rattled across the handles of the drawers.
"How are we supposed to kill this?!" He demanded.
James pointed back to the cubicle they'd been looting when the first trap had gone off. "Rope in the bag. Hold it down, break it."
Dave started to move for the door, but the cart was already swinging around, driving straight at him. He dodged, but it was restabilizing, and it got up a burst of speed before knocking him off his feet. He let out a whoomp of air as he was slammed to the ground, and the cart perched one wheel on his throat. James froze as its drawers opened up along its sides; the small slots for sorting mail containing, instead of letters or parcels, unblinking paper eyes that pivoted to focus on James.
"Oh, fuck, of course you're some Lovecraftian bullshit." He threw the words at the thing. Dave, under it, appeared to be struggling far more than its apparent weight would have made James think was reasonable. "Get off him." He commanded it.
To his surprise, it obliged, wheeling itself backward a bit, over Dave's prone form. James almost wanted to try for a peaceful resolution, before the eyes turned sharp and pointed at him, and the cart tipped itself sideways, one of the coffee cups started smoking, and detached from it. James saw some kind of black sinew snap off at its base, and it started tumbling toward Dave.
Eyes wide, heart racing, James shuffle-stepped forward and lashed out with his foot. He caught the cup as softly as he could, while still moving fast enough to hit it before it hit the floor. Cradling it on the slope of his boot, he flung it down the hallway, as far away from them as he could. It got maybe three feet before it airburst, a wave of pressure knocking James backward into the cube wall.
His vision went blurry, and he heard Dave screaming from the floor. When James righted himself again, he saw Dave holding a hand to his face, small drops of coffee sprayed across his skin. "Fuck. Okay, we need to get some burn gel on that." He said.
He knelt down to help Dave up, but his friend shoved him away. "It's coming back!" He shouted, and James turned to see the cart had gone to the other end of the hallway, before turning around. Either it really wanted to build up speed, or it had changed its mind about running and was going to try to finish them off.
The coffee cups on its back started smoking. All of them. Apparently, it had noticed the adverse reaction Dave had, and decided to go for all or nothing. "Okay, fuck that." James said. If that thing got too close, they were either dead, or wishing they were. So, he thought, fuck it. I'm supposed to be able to sublimate rubber. Let's see if this works.
"Secret." He muttered to himself. "I don't actually know how this works, and I could use some help right now." The response was swift. Inside his mind, something moved, a perspective shifted, and James, for just a second, saw the world the way a magic item would.
Then there was a snapping back to reality, and spike of *something* lashed out of his arm. The plastic shell of his armor turned to powder, motes of black vapor no longer held together by anything. He felt more than saw the power he'd unleashed rush down the hall toward the mail cart, impact it, and wash over it.
The metal frame didn't change. The wire baskets didn't care. The coffee cups on the top shrugged it off. The paper and ichor organs and eyes stored inside it weren't even close to affected.
The wheels exploded.
The cart lost control at once. It tried flexing its legs to regain balance, but without the wheels it was used to, it was about as effective as a human trying to recover from a full sprint when their feet vanished. Trails of vaporized rubber flowed behind it as it slammed into the ground on its side, the coffee blisters on its back detonating one after another at the impact. It let out another bleating cry, and just lay there for a second, giving James long enough to haul Dave back to his feet.
The two of them didn't speak as they recovered their weapons, and circled around the creature. It was trying to pull itself to its metal legs, the frame warping in strangely organic ways and making it look more like a frightened metal deer now that it was stripped of its mobility and armaments.
It had some of its eyes out, one of them slightly ripped, and it flicked its vision between its two hunters. Dave moved in first, bringing the crowbar down at one of its drawers that was left hanging open. It clanged into it, bending part of it, but not breaking anything. In response, the creature proved it wasn't completely defenseless; one of the few still-closed drawers popped open, and a spray of paper came out. Sheet after sheet, crisp and pure white, flew up at Dave's face, aiming to startle or unbalance him.
He just covered his face with one gloved hand, and then smashed down again with the crowbar as soon as the assault ended. On the other side, James grabbed one of the drawers, holding it open while he slammed his hatchet into the paper eye inside. It crumpled right away, black goo seeping out of the side of it, and triggering another hateful cry.
They pressed the attack, not giving it a chance to recover, and bit by bit, dismantled it. Dave tore out drawers, James laid into it with the pen, and in five minutes, the cart finally gave one last howl, and perished. It struggled to the last, though, dragging itself through the hall, kicking at them, and drawing in striders with its screams. But the two of them handled everything it had, and emerged victorious.
"Jesus fucking Christ, that was awful." Dave gasped out.
The two of them stood in the crumpled remains of what was once a metallic life form, panting for breath. Around them, a dozen small yellow orbs dotted the floor where they'd struck down striders trying to scavenge the fight. James had a nasty gash on his right wrist where the armor had simply been wiped away by the use of his ability, and something had nailed him in that small weak point. But they were alive, and victorious.
"No kidding. Let's sweep this place, and get patched up. I want to get out of here before a sentient desk decides it's time to show off." James said as he steadied his breathing. "You still up for moving on?"
"Oh, hell yes." Dave said. "That was insane! But it was also... um..." He tried to find the words to make it sound like he wasn't crazy.
"Nah, I get it." James smiled. "It actually is a ton of fun, fighting for your life, isn't it?"
His friend nodded in relief that James understood. "Why? I didn't even do anything. I would have died if you weren't here. Why is this so... cool?!" He asked as James tossed him a packet of burn gel from the medkit and started wrapping up his own cut.
"I think we're just profoundly fucked up." James told him with a sunny smile. "Hey, did you get the orb from the big one?" He asked as they shouldered the backpacks and prepared to move out.
"Oh! Hang on!" Dave turned and trotted back, returning to James with a baseball sized yellow orb, and also a small package, wrapped in brown parcel paper. "Hey, this was still intact. Do you mind if I take it?" He asked.
"I don't... isn't that just a corpse bit?" James asked, confused.
Dave shrugged. "I dunno, it just seems reasonable that a wrapped package has something useful in it."
Before they started moving again, James stopped Dave. "Alright, tell you what. I'm going to go see if I can find fifty bucks in that cube so we can all go get dinner after this. You open that up, and if it's something useful... well, I'll bet you one loot share it's not."
"Deal!" Dave said without hesitation. James shook his head, and ducked through the door to do the standard loot sweep. They were far enough in that the cubicles were getting into some weird geometry, and this one had a ceiling that came down in stalactites overhead, giving it the feeling of a cave. He found two rolls of quarters in the cubicle, each one arbitrarily $6.25 worth of coins, and also scored a packet of Gummy Shrocks, which he hadn't seen in a while. Coming back out after the quick sweep, he saw Dave standing there holding a small black box in his hand.
"So...?" James prompted him.
Dave looked up, an uncertain expression on his face. "It's a printer ink cartridge?"
Both of them looked down at it for a minute, before James shrugged. "Okay, we postpone the bet. Pack it up, and let's move. Fifty-fifty odds it's either bizarrely normal, or turns the printer into a swan or some shit."
"What constitutes 'bizarrely normal'?" Dave asked as James checked their map, and started them moving on toward the Decision Tree, which should be just around a few more turns.
"I like how you question that and not the swan thing." James smiled. "And I'm thinking, I dunno, only two colors and one of them is puce."
"That would be bizarrely normal." Dave agreed.
Falling back into their pattern of move-and-sweep, they moved on. A little more beat up, a bit tired, but having a blast, and not ready to turn back yet.
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Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!